Postmodernism is finished in philosophy. After 9/11 the denial of objective reality looks neither daring nor cleverby Julian Baggini / September 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Postmodernism is dead, finally killed off after years of sickness as a result of mortal injuries sustained on 11th September 2001.
Ideas don’t just die, of course. Intellectual fashions come and go but even at their nadir, there remain traces, legacies and adherents who keep the faith. So postmodernists still exist and postmodernism’s influence can still be felt. Nevertheless, philosophically speaking, postmodernism is a spent force.
To justify this diagnosis, it is important to distinguish between postmodernism as an artistic, cultural and social phenomenon and postmodernism as a philosophical position. In the arts, as Lois McNay puts it in the latest issue of the Philosophers’ Magazine, postmodernism is characterised by a “rejection of a consistent, coherent aesthetic in favour of a playful, eclectic style which draws on many different sources.” This strand of postmodernism is alive and well; its influence can be seen on mainstream films and television programmes. The use of surreal fantasy sequences in the otherwise conventional comedy series Ally McBeal is an example of how postmodernism’s influence has eroded the barriers between hitherto distinct genres. James Brown’s new magazine Jack is also stereotypically postmodern, mixing high and low-brow with an eclectic aesthetic that draws on escapist adventure stories, National Geographic and women’s glossies.
However, neither the production nor the enjoyment of any of these postmodern products requires any commitments concerning the fundamental nature of reality (ontology) or the nature of truth (epistemology). Nor does accepting the postmodern political belief that society has become more fragmented and peoples’ identities more blurred. This is tied up with what Jean-Franç¯©s Lyotard called the end of “grand narratives”: all-embracing philosophical systems which can explain human experience and history.
But that does not amount to a distinct philosophical thesis. Indeed, most of 20th-century Anglo-American analytic philosophy-perhaps the least postmodern alcove in academia-has been based on a rejection of grand systems, such as those of Kant, Hegel and Marx. In its place has been a piecemeal approach to philosophy that is as much opposed to grand narratives as postmodernism.
Nor is the rejection of absolute truth the hallmark of a distinct philosophy. There are many ways to be a relativist, not all of them intellectually disgraceful, as Jonathan Ré¥ has recently pointed out in these pages.
We cannot locate a philosophy that lies behind these various postmodern positions because there isn’t one. What is worse, when people do try to make the…